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M2M cellular connections will reach 250 million this year

For Mobile World Congress the GSMA has produced an M2M report ('From concept to delivery: the M2M market today') which outlines the way the M2M market has developed from 2010 to now and reaches a few conclusions about the near future.

The first thing to say is that the GSMA happily conflates M2M connections and cellular M2M connections - it only recognises the SIM-based M2M sector and no other. And it has a point, of course. While we hear much about the Internet of Things and ultra-low-cost modules capable of clocking up billions of connections, this is mostly future-ware. When it comes to today’s commercial deployments the cellular network is still ‘the Daddy’ with alternatives such as Zigbee and WiFi only operating at the margins, while alternative M2M specialist networks, such as NeulNET, are still years away.

With that in mind then, the study counts 195 million global M2M connections in 2013, with growth at nearly 40 per cent per year (38 per cent CAGR) between 2010 and 2013. That suggests M2M connections will reach 250 million this year. It says that M2M accounted for 2.8 per cent of all global mobile connections at the end of 2013, double the 1.4 per cent share recorded in 2010.

Around 428 mobile operators currently offer M2M services across 187 countries; this is equivalent to 40 per cent of the world's mobile operators.

"We are now living in a world where every device, machine or appliance can be wirelessly connected to the internet, providing a wealth of real-time information that can transform how people live and work. For mobile operators, connecting 'machines' to their networks is now a major focus area," said Hyunmi Yang, Chief Strategy Officer, GSMA.

But just because cellular is holding on to the M2M market today doesn’t mean it can expect to do so forever - at least not without some radical adjustment and new network technology. Probably cellular modules can continue to come down in cost to the point where module price doesn’t much matter any more as manufacturing scale kicks in. And perhaps there will be a smooth enough transition to LTE and beyond with costs slashed even more as billions of modules are put to work… perhaps.

But it seems less likely that cellular networks will ever be able to match the ultra-low-power requirements and long working life (without human intervention) that alternative technology solutions such as Weightless and NeulNET claim to offer. Those characteristics will be required for what looks like being a large proportion of IoT and consumer M2M applications.

So it seems likely that the mobile network industry as a whole (the GSMA) will soon have to make some crucial decisions about network direction. Can it continue to push ahead with M2M being just another important application on a vanilla macro cell network - albeit one with specialised tariffs and ‘terminals’ - or might it have to make some technology direction decisions to fold in new network technologies that need to be supported if the industry is to stay on top of M2M/IoT?

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